My EC1 Echo explainer on London Wall West, and update

Here’s my article on London Wall West, published in the current edition of the EC1 Echo. It was finalised after the City’s Court of Common Council on July 21, but I didn’t have time or space to analyse discussion in detail. I’ve provided an update below.

Text of the article

There are two very different visions for the London Wall West site on the edge of the Barbican estate, due for development once the Museum of London closes in preparation for a move to West Smithfield.

The City Corporation’s vision gives priority to commercial use, the tradition economic base for the City. It is currently consulting on plans for 780,000 square feet of an office-based development, and saying that revenue from the scheme will help fund the new Museum.

Opposing the scheme, the Barbican Quarter Action campaign advocate more cultural and social uses, respecting local heritage, and providing a gateway to the City’s Culture District. They favour reuse of the Museum building, and the Bastion House office block, if possible.

Initially the City also favoured cultural uses for the site, offering to contribute £6.8 million to a £288 million Centre for Music. However last year the Centre was scrapped, and funds diverted to a major renewal of the nearby Barbican Arts Centre.

When the Centre for Music was dropped, the City’s Property Investment Board chose to proceed with an office-based scheme. Other options were never discussed by the City’s ultimate decision-making body, the Court of Common Council.

The City held an initial consultation on the scheme in December 2021, and is now consulting on revised plans, saying:

“Through its development, the site provides an opportunity to create a world-class destination that attracts major businesses”.

Local councillors, and the campaign, have called for for a full report on options to be debated by the Court. See accompanying article about that move.

The City has itself recognised the need for a change in its economic strategy, and is investing £2.5 million a year in events and other attractions. Launching the Destination City campaign Policy Chairman Chris Hayward said:

“We must seize this once-in-a-generation opportunity to redefine the City of London and enhance its leisure offer. This will boost our attractiveness to existing audiences while also opening it up to new ones, just as the Elizabeth line is set to connect more people to the City directly than ever before.

“Destination City will be the latest reinvention in the Square Mile’s long history. It will drive our recovery from the pandemic and boost our attractiveness to talent by growing the City’s cultural offer, in turn revitalising our streets and reinvigorating our businesses”.

The London Wall West consultation pack proposes new open spaces, a cultural events space, plus community and learning facilities. These are said to support Destination City.

The campaign says the cultural dimension is a very small part of the total and asks on its London Starts Here website:

“Where is the vision that built the Barbican Quarter in a time of post-war austerity? Why has the City lost its imagination and courage to do great things?

“Millions of people will be drawn to this area and we have to make it an unforgettable experience”.

At the Court of Common Council on July 21 Mr Hayward rejected calls from several members for a debate at Court on alternatives to the offices scheme. He said that offices would provide the greatest financial return, and this was essential in order to fund the move of the Museum of London. He confirmed no other cultural options had been considered beyond the Centre for Music.

Discussion over the next few months may focus down on the future of one particular site, or may widen into a broader debate about the sort of development that the City, and London, needs in the changed circumstances brought by the pandemic.

Analysis and update

Discussion at the Court on July 21 focussed on bringing options for the site for considerations by the full Court.

I have embedded video from the Court discussion, with other links and background, on this page.

Here then is my understanding of the current situation, from that discussion, and other research:

  • Decisions to proceed with the current scheme were made by Policy and Resources committee, not the Court. No alternative cultural use was considered after the Centre for Music was abandoned.
  • The City Corporation is pressing ahead with the office-based scheme, with the aim of making a planning application (to its own planning committee) in late autumn.
  • Some modifications to the scheme may be offered, but policy chief Chris Hayward ruled out consideration of other major changes at the Court meeting, including alternatives to office development.
  • There may be moves to get further debate at Court.
  • Otherwise the next point of leverage for the London Starts Here campaign seems to be planning committee, and/or a judicial review of the decision-making process so far. Chris Hayward said at the July Court that he was confident appropriate procedures had been followed, but the campaign might decide to challenge that.
  • The City Corporation will resist any delay, arguing that the development is needed to fund the move of the Museum from its current site to Smithfield. There is currently a Certificate of Immunity that prevents spot-listing to preserve the existing buildings. However that expires in August 2024.

Barbican Quarter Action has a lively Twitter feed with news from the campaign and wider discussion on the issues raised by the development and the future of cities.

Unfortunately there isn’t any general open forum for those who don’t use social media.

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